EU risks recognising Western Sahara products as Moroccan

Under a proposed agreement between EU and Morocco on so-called 'Geographical Indications', camel milk and camel cheese from occupied Western Sahara could receive protection as a Moroccan product.
Published: 27.03 - 2018 13:07Printer version    
On 15 March 2018, the Moroccan Official Journal published a Ministerial Order according an Agricultural Label to "camel cheese from the Sahara" ("Fromage de Chamelle du Sahara"). The label had been requested by the cooperative "Ajbane Dakhla" - a Dakhla based cooperative seeking the protective clause for its camel cheese. The Moroccan government grants such labels in recognition of a product that distinguishes itself from similar products in terms of production conditions and geographical origin. Only cheese made with milk from local camel species, and respecting certain conditions with regard to product characteristics, production and preservation standards, can be called "camel cheese from the Sahara".

It is the second product made in occupied Western Sahara that receives a protective measure based on its origin under Moroccan law. In June 2017, "Camel milk from the Sahara" was registered as a Geographical Indication (GI), to be granted to all camel farmers who meet certain conditions and who are from the Oued Eddahad area, which is located in its entirety in occupied Western Sahara.

Contentious Camel Conference

The International Society of Camelid Research and Development (ISOCARD) is this year hosting its triennial conference in El Aaiun, the capital city of occupied Western Sahara. The conference is scheduled to take place from 12 to 15 November 2018. Documents relating to the conference, such as the call for abstracts, all locate "Laâyoune" in "Morocco". WSRW on 27 March 2018 wrote the organisation to request the conference location be moved to Morocco proper. WSRW also wrote to the organisation's 260 members with the same request. The conference is co-sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
UPDATE, 13.04.2018: FAO and OIE has written to WSRW that they have nothing to do with the conference.
A geographical indication is a distinctive sign used to identify a product as originating in a particular country, region or locality where its quality, reputation or other characteristics are linked to its geographical origin. Famous examples are champagne, cognac, parmigian cheese, darjeeling tea, etc. Champagne can only be called champagne if it actually comes from the Champagne region in France. But also non-geographical names can be protected if linked to a particular place; e.g. Feta cheese is not named after a place but so closely connected to Greece that it is identified as a Greek product.

As such, GIs are a protective measure of economic and cultural value, to prevent misuse and counterfeiting.

Under a proposed EU-Morocco GI deal, camel milk and camel cheese from occupied Western Sahara would thus receive protection as a product registered by Morocco.

In January 2015, the European Commission and Morocco initialed a Geographical Indications agreement, that would protect around 3200 EU products versus 28 Moroccan products. The list of GIs that Morocco shared with the EU dated 9 January 2013 consisted of 14 wines and 14 agricultural products. At that time did not seem to include a product from Western Sahara. Find the proposed text, including the list of registered GIs, here.

Dakhla camel milk was formally registered under Moroccan legislation in June 2017, and thus does not appear in the list Morocco shared with the EU.

If and when the agreement would be adopted, it would be possible for Morocco to register Western Sahara products as eligible for a GI in the future. That registration would be an exclusive Moroccan affair, not requiring EU approval. The objective of these measures is to offer direct protection to the geographical indications registered by the parties on the basis of their own legislation

Former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, stated in June 2011: "Morocco could register as geographical indications products originating in Western Sahara if they respond to the criteria fixed by its legislation in this field".

The GI deal is still undergoing review by the European Parliament, which was expected to vote on the proposed agreement in 2016. The process was put on hold, however, following legal developments on the EU-Morocco agriculture agreement in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The EU Court ruled that no EU Trade or Association Agreement could be applied to Western Sahara, because it has a "separate and distinct status" from Morocco. The proposed GI deal forms an integral part of the Association Agreement.

"Based on the 2016 judgement of CJEU, and on the news that Morocco openly has intention to seek protection to products originating from Western Sahara, WSRW calls on the EU to not adopt an agreement unless it is specifically stated that Morocco can only apply the agreement to products originating from places inside the territory of Morocco as internationally recognised", stated Sara Eyckmans of Western Sahara Resource Watch.

Dutch Member of the European Parliament, Peter van Dalen, reviewed the proposed agreement for the Parliament's Fisheries Committee, and wrote in his opinion that "The Committee on Fisheries takes into account the judgment of the European Court of Justice of 21 December 2016 (Case C-104/16P) and its implications; the GI agreement should hence not cover products from Western Sahara until the conflict between Morocco and the Front Polisario has been resolved according to international law."

In April 2017, Morocco had registered 43 products with a geographical indication, 5 products with a protected designation of origin and two products with an Agricultural label. WSRW cannot confirm whether that list has been formally transmitted to the European institutions.

The GI agreement was ratified in Berlin on 16 January 2015 by EU Commissioner for Agriculture Hogan and Moroccan Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture Aziz Ackannouch. The mandate to negotiate GIs was already given in 2005, when the Commission received a mandate to negotiate trade liberalization of the FTA with Morocco. That was concluded in October 2012. It took five rounds of talks between December 2012 and December 2014 before an agreement could be reached between the two parties.

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